After finally seeing the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit last week, I’ve been in the mood for Westerns. I’ve always been a sort of subconscious fan of the genre but didn’t accept it until recently. My favorite book from ages 8 to 10 was called The Gentleman Outlaw and Me—Eli. The first DVD I bought for my budding collection was a copy of the 2001 film American Outlaws (we all make mistakes). My favorite book series in high school was Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, starting with The Gunslinger. I’m nearly obsessed with Cormac McCarthy novels. I have a Clint Eastwood poster on my wall. I’m really not sure how I didn’t see this coming.
Now that I’m beginning to embrace my inner cowgirl, I plan to watch a handful of westerns that I’ve been meaning to for a long time. Last week I managed to take a look at the boldly titled 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
I’ve never been an authority on Jesse James. As I mentioned earlier, my main source of info on the James Gang was American Outlaws, along with that strange episode of The Brady Bunch. Jesse James has become a fading legend in contemporary America. Judging by the title of this film I thought I had a clear idea of what I was getting into.
However, despite the title, I can’t help but find the film strangely objective. In a beautifully spellbinding fashion the film relates the story of Robert Ford and his relationship with Jesse James up until the time of James’ death. From a screenwriting perspective, the main issue is: how do you maintain interest in a story in which the climax and ending are revealed in the title? The answer, director and screenwriter Andrew Dominik shows us, is through a fascinating focus on characters and relationships.
As a historical figure, most people know the general story of Jesse James. Those who are more historically inclined may even know a little about Robert Ford. However, this film chooses to tell us the unfamiliar stories, and then wisely leaves them open ended. We do not see Jesse James the clever and sharp shooting outlaw whose exploits became the stuff of legends. Instead, we see the complex, brooding, and at times psychopathic husband and father that Jesse must have been on his off days.
Bob Ford’s character is depicted using more adjectives than the simple label of “coward” that history has bestowed on him. He is a lifelong fan of Jesse’s whose whole world changes when he gets the chance to ride with the gang. However, something changes for Bob once he befriends his boyhood idol, but exactly what changes is a mystery. The film allows this question to remain open-ended, in full awareness of the fact that this change is what eventually led Bob to kill his former hero.
Jesse takes a strange liking to Bob in a way that no other gang member is able to, and Bob eagerly plays the role of the obsessive stalker fan. However their initial closeness soon turns sour as each expects the other to betray him. What draws us into the film is the strange intimacy that develops between the two figures over the course of this film. It waxes and wanes and ultimately seeks to dissolve the boundaries between fan and hero, friend and lover, and even self and other.
Bob’s love for Jesse moves beyond the typical representation of romantic love in which a partner wishes merely to coexist with a mate. Instead, the Bob’s desire captures more the sentiment of the Greek term “eros,” which (as I learned in class today) means “to bind”. While Bob may not desire a sexual consummation of his relationship with Jesse, he does desire the result—that is to “consume” Jesse’s person, and submit to the sublimation of self that occurs during a sexual union.
Through his murdering of Jesse, Bob enacts his wish to overtake and conquer the object of his devotion. The film treats the exact motive behind Bob’s killing of Jesse ambiguously and suggests a few options. Perhaps Bob grew disillusioned with Jesse’s marauding ways and sought justice for many fallen victims. Perhaps it was self-protection, fearing that Jesse’s paranoia and suspicion of him would ultimately lead to his own death. The film does not take sides but only emphasizes the intense bond between the two.
Despite its declarative title, the film retains a tone of ambivalence throughout that is strengthened by the continual motif of lenses and photography as a way of calling attention to perspective. Montages are shown using aberration, reminiscent of the edges of old photographs that reminds us that our current story is in constant dialogue with the historicized versions of Jesse’s life.
The warped glass of the window panes reminds us of the distorting effects of perspective. This sentiment is echoed in the hauntingly ghostlike photographs of Jesse’s deceased body that soon became popular mementos after his death. Lastly, the most important glass image of all is the one reflected in the glass of the picture frame that Jesse moves to adjust before being shot in the back.
By murdering Jesse James, Robert Ford performed the role of a jealous lover and asserted himself as the most important figure in James’ life. The legacy of Ford’s action is to forever bind himself with the memory of Jesse James as the coda that brought the myth to an end. Even now, this bond is reflected in the film’s full title, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. While Jesse James may remain the subject of stories and wild west admiration, Robert Ford has ensured that he will always have the last word.